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Copyright, Ethics, and Journalism

By H. A. (Buster) Dobbs

religion, articles, christianity

Write therefore the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall take place after these things.

It is manifestly not wrong to tell it like it is. Conversely, it is clearly wicked to cover up, deceive, and fail to report even squalid and shameful things.

Journalism is defined as: "The collecting, writing, editing, and presentation of news or news articles in newspapers and magazines and in radio and television broadcasts."

People accuse journalism of being too personal; but to me it has always seemed far too impersonal. It is charged with tearing away the veils from private life; but it seems to me to be always dropping diaphanous but blinding veils between men and men. The Yellow Press is abused for exposing facts which are private; I wish the Yellow Press did anything so valuable. It is exactly the decisive individual touches that it never gives; and a proof of this is that after one has met a man a million times in the newspapers it is always a complete shock and reversal to meet him in real life (G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), British author. Tremendous Trifles, 'A Great Man' (1909).

The world famous "Anonymous" said: "Doctors bury their mistakes. Lawyers hang them. But journalists put theirs on the front page."

It may be that I am overly sensitive - or even paranoid - but it seems to me that editors get an unfair percentage of verbal brickbats. They are constantly being told that they are unethical, hardhearted and unfair.

When a well-known person is accurately quoted to his disadvantage, he may respond by saying that private matters have been put under the glare of a public spotlight and that it ain't right. (Of course, he doesn't say "ain't," I put that in for color - that's how editors are.)

People seem to think they can say or do anything they want and are insulated from exposure by copyright law, which seems to be a widely misunderstood law. If not accused of violating copyright, editors are accused of being unethical. So, we are going to talk about copyright and ethics.

Copyright: If what the average person seems to think about copyright were true, no newspaper could be published. The daily news tells us about what people say and do. If a person makes a speech or writes an article or letter or makes a private statement, it may be reported in the media. This does not abuse the perpetrator of the speech, article, letter or statement. When a person says something, he needs to taste his words and consider if he would like to see what he has said on the front page of tomorrow morning's newspaper. If not, he best keep his mouth shut and his actions circumspect.

What about copyright law? What is protected and what is fair game? The copyright law was recently revised (1993-94). It is protective for a longer time than ever before. The law is designed to protect a person from having his ideas stolen and commercialized. If a person creates a good idea, he has the right to profit from it. Another person does not have the right to take his good idea and enrich himself.

The law is not intended to exempt a person from his own foolish and reckless statements, nor to exempt him from accountability when he says things that are damaging to others. Written words have copyright protection at the moment they are created, with or without the copyright symbol a "©."

An important part of the copyright law is the "Fair Use," section 107. It reads:

Notwithstanding the provisions of sections 106 and 106A, the fair use of copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright. In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include:
The purpose ant character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes:
The nature of the copyright work;
The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
The effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work. The fact that a work is unpublished shall not itself bar a finding of fair use if such finding is made upon consideration of all the above factors.

Some do not seem to understand the 'fair use' provision of the copyright law. It boils down to this: If I report what you say - even if I shout it from the rooftops - and do not make a profit from it, that is fair use. If I quote you in whole or in part for the purpose of criticism, that is fair use. If I quote a written or spoken statement, whether private or public, for educational purposes, that is fair use. A U.S. Government circular on copyright law says:

Although the courts have considered and ruled upon the fair use doctrine over and over again, no real definition of the concept has ever emerged. Indeed, since the doctrine is an equitable rule of reason, no generally applicable definition is possible, and each case raising the question must be decided on its own facts.

Freedom of speech is a constitutional guarantee. So is freedom of press. The copyright law was never intended to restrict the people's right to know or abridge the media's right to tell. To attempt to shut the mouth of media is dangerous and can lead to many abuses. In the church, the people have a right to know what is taught in the schools, in the pulpits and in printed matter. If there is misrepresentation and falsehood and heresy disseminated, privately or publicly, the redeemed have a right to know. What they may chose to do after being informed is their business.

Okay, okay, we understand that a person cannot claim copyright law as an exemption from his careless statements, but what about ethics. Is it ethical to report accurately what another person has said, written or done? The cry that is often heard when the statements of a person are reported is: "It is not ethical to tell people what I said or did." So, what about ethics? Is it ethical to make statements and then try to escape the consequence by claiming it is unethical to report what is said?


What is ethics? The dictionary says: "A set of principles of right conduct. A theory or a system of moral values: 'An ethic of service is at war with a craving for gain' (Gregg Easterbrook). The study of the general nature of morals and of the specific moral choices to be made by a person; moral philosophy. The rules or standards governing the conduct of a person or the members of a profession: medical ethics."

In other words, "ethics" means "common sense, basic fairness and fundamental honesty."

I do not have the right to misrepresent you, but I do have the right to present what you say and do. It is unethical to slander you, but it is ethical to accurately report what you have said and done.

A person may say that the mother of Jesus was "a sexually questionable woman." If I report what he said, it is ethical. If I misrepresent him, it is unethical. It is just that simple.

Let us ponder another scenario: A person says something that is ridiculous. An editor reports what the person said accurately. Is the editor unethical?

Here is another scenario: A person publicly reports something another person wrote, said or did and another person sends private communications (personal letters) to others critiquing public statements privately, is that ethical? Well, suppose, in the private letter, the writer attacks the character of another person, is that ethical? Suppose he makes harsh accusations against another person, is that ethical? Is he guilty of backbiting and whispering? Now we are getting someplace, if what he does is not unethical, it is sinful. (It is hard to see how a thing can be sinful but ethical.)

In other words, Is it ethical to slander a person in private letters? If I say something out in the open and someone attacks me in private letters, is his conduct ethical?


Well, that brings us, full circle, to journalism again. What about it? Is it sinful to report and criticize what has been said or done? Is it wrong to report conduct or statements to the whole world? Is it depraved to tell the truth?

The lowest form of popular culture-lack of information, misinformation, disinformation, and a contempt for the truth or reality of most people's lives-has overrun real journalism. Today, ordinary Americans are being stuffed with garbage (Carl Bernstein, U.S. journalist, Guardian, London, 3 June 1992).

Let us pray that the church is not being "stuffed with garbage" in the name of copyright protection and ethics.

"Am I become your enemy because I tell you the truth?"


Journalism without a moral position is impossible. Every journalist is a moralist. It's absolutely unavoidable. A journalist is someone who looks at the world and the way it works, someone who takes a close look at things every day and reports what she sees, someone who represents the world, the event, for others. She cannot do her work without judging what she sees (Marguerite Duras [b. 1914], French author, filmmaker. Outside: Selected Writings, Foreword [1984]).
I am a journalist and, under the modern journalist's code of Olympian objectivity (and total purity of motive), I am absolved of responsibility. We journalists don't have to step on roaches. All we have to do is turn on the kitchen light and watch the critters scurry (J. O'Rourke [b. 1947], U.S. journalist. Parliament of Whores, 'Why God Is a Republican and Santa Claus Is a Democrat' [1991]).

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